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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Tragedy One Hundred Years Later


This article wants to be a bridge between Italy and the United States – under the sign of poetry and pietas. Therefore, it is presented both in English and Italian.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burst in flames on March 25, 1911, and that tragedy has not been forgotten. On that day, 146 people, mostly young Italian and Jewish workers, were trapped in the burning factory, and some of them jumped from the windows onto the sidewalks to escape hell. The laboratories were located on the top floors of a building in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, and the workers were locked inside – in a criminal maneuver to avoid theft.

On March 25th, 2023, a new monument commemorating this workplace tragedy was installed, thanks to the efforts by Hofstra University Professor Mary Ann Trasciatti, who is also the President of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition Group. The new memorial consists of a metal ribbon that descends from the building, in which the donations of remnants of fabrics, rags, embroidery and crochet work of sentimental value have been crystallized. These scraps were sent by hundreds of Italian and non-Italian American women (including a group coordinated by the Italian program at Florida Atlantic University). Recently, Mary Ann Trasciatti and Edvige Giunta rekindled the memory of the sad story through memoirs and creative writing in Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (New York, New Village Press, 2022).

We want to commemorate this event with a poem written by a Sardinian-born poet, Roman by adoption, Michele Arcangelo Firinu. It is part of the collection of around sixty poems composed by him between 1980 and 2023 and collected under the title Il piede sulla luna (The Foot on the Moon, Fermenti editrice, 2023).

In “Women-Angels Fly Embraced” the poet recalls the New York tragedy but broadens its perspective to connect it to an accident occurred in an Italian workplace, exactly one century later. On October 3rd, 2011, in a knitwear factory in Via Roma in Barletta, four women lost their lives, buried alive by the collapse of the building in which they worked illegally.

This poem takes the form of a cascade of short verses, in clouds of words and no punctuation, to recall the explosions and the trajectory of those desperate women. At the same time, it ties these women in an ideal embrace between two centuries and two different continents, ending with an offering of ember flowers.

Here is the poem in double version, with English translation by Ilaria Serra.

Donne-angelo volano abbracciate
Donne-angelo volano abbracciate per sempre strette negli schianti e nei roghi di palazzi
Cayenne dei forzati
A Barletta Tina abbracciava la morte di Maria nel volo della casa spatasciata
Faticavano dieci ore al giorno per euro tre e novantacinque centesimi l’ora
Chissà quale calcolo impediva l’elargizione di quegli ultimi cinque centesimi per lo sfruttamento delle sartine nell’anno di disgrazia duemilaundici
Come a New York cent’anni prima quella tempesta furibonda d’ali di fiamme d’ali di scintille d’ali di fumo di crematorio su ai piani alti Triangle Shirtwaist
Il venticinque marzo millenovecentoundici volarono aghi incandescenti bobine rocchetti scampoli camicie camiciaie angeli d’immeritata di non goduta giovinezza diciassette angeli di sesso maschile centoventinove angeli erano donne sedicenni trentatreenni le più anziane
Api operaie chiuse a chiave da fuori nell’alveare per non poter rubare ciò che si dissipò dentro forbici di fiamme
Chine a cucire sulle macchine incatenate a un dollaro e mezzo al giorno
diciotto dollari ogni dodici camicie cucite in quella maledetta primavera
Nella babele di fuoco tra bestemmie russe ucraine italiane irlandesi palestinesi rumene a decine si tuffarono in volo dieci piani ali di fiamme su capelli e gonne
Altre donne saldavano lingue carni rantoli carboni alle macchine da cucire
L’ultimo abbraccio cuciva l’ultimo scampolo di verità
In vita in morte meno che schiave furono ingranaggi divine macchine feticci supremi del vitello d’oro
In quella maledetta primavera fiorivano sprimacciati dalle vampe petali di braci
Women-Angel Fly in Each Other Arms
Women-angel fly in each other arms forever bonded by crashing and flaming buildings
Cayenne for convicts
In Barletta Tina embraced Maria’s death on her flight from the wrecked house
They toiled ten hours a day for three euro and ninety-five cents an hour
Who knows what calculation prevented the payment of those last five cents in the exploitation of young seamstresses in the year of misfortune two thousand and eleven
As in New York a hundred years earlier that furious storm of wings of flames of wings of sparks of wings of crematorium smoke up on the upper floors Triangle Shirtwaist
On the twenty-fifth of March one thousand nine hundred and eleven incandescent needles flew bobbins spools remnants shirts shirtmakers angels of undeserved and unenjoyed youth seventeen male angels one hundred and twenty-nine angels were women sixteen-year-old thirty-three-year-old the oldest
Worker bees locked in the hive from outside to prevent them from stealing what dissipated between scissors of flames
Bent over sewing machines chained to a dollar and a half a day
eighteen dollars for every twelve shirts sewn in that damned spring
In the babel of fire among Russian Ukrainian Italian Irish Romanian Palestinian blasphemies by the dozen dove ten stories into the air wings of flames on their hair and skirts
Other women were welding tongues flesh gasps coals to sewing machines
The last hug sewed the last scrap of truth
In life in death less than slaves they were cogs divine machines supreme fetishes of the golden calf
In that damned spring they flourished among bursts of flames ember petals

Read it in italian by clicking here

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